1.0. Psyops: What is it?
Russian Strategic Psychological Operations (Psyops), specifically information operations, have an important place in the Kremlin’s foreign policy and Russian military strategy. Russia is conducting psyops on a global scale. Still, the war in Ukraine, the increasing attention to the Arctic region, and the Swedish and Finnish applications to NATO are all factors which increase strategic value in psyops targeting Northern Europe.
Psyops are mainly operations intending to influence an adversary’s emotions and motives to shape the behaviour of governments, organisations, groups, and individuals. Strategic psyops mainly focus on shaping narratives through disinformation campaigns and other types of influence operations, encouraging popular discontent and degrading an adversary’s ability to maintain unity at domestic and foreign policy levels. Strategic psyops constitute a desirable alternative to inflicting harm on an opponent below the threshold of war.
Looking at the influence operations element of psyops, these are the coordinated covert activities initiated by a state actor to influence decision-making, perceptions, and policy-objectives of influential actors such as experts and media outlets in opponent states. Such operations aim to achieve foreign policy objectives through tailored disinformation campaigns.
2.0. Russian Influence Operations
The European Commission identifies Russian disinformation campaigns as the greatest threat to the European Union (EU) because of their systematic and large-scale objectives [source]. More generally, Russian influence operations are Russian-affiliated activities targeting public opinion and influencing decision-making in directions favourable to the Kremlin. Standard methods use social media to promote rumours, insinuations, altered facts, and lies. Moreover, international and local front organisations lobbying for Kremlin’s strategic objectives is a frequent occurrence, sometimes utilising narratives from peace or climate movements. Furthermore, Russia frequently uses academic, political, economic, and media actors to influence the policies of adversaries.
In Northern Europe, and especially Arctic countries, affiliated Russian actors are likely pursuing influence operations targeting sectors of interest and utilising social vulnerabilities in target countries. Target sectors include natural resources such as energy and critical minerals, military support for Ukraine, and defence capabilities. Social vulnerabilities constitute domestic and foreign policy-related objectives such as utilising minorities, public opinions on military spending and alliances, and trust towards governmental entities.
2.1. Common Methods and Tools
2.1.1. Social Media
Russia is facilitating its efforts to discredit adversaries, spreading disinformation through an extensive and growing use of social media tools. Russian embassies are particularly active on Twitter and Facebook apart from their official webpages striving to broaden and reach larger target audiences. Moreover, Russia is reportedly deploying and coordinating human social media “trolls” and computer-driven “bots” further to influence targets in line with Kremlin policy objectives. Russia is utilising a combination of these tools in large-scale campaigns targeting public opinion to promote distrust and saw a split among adversaries’ populations.
2.1.2. Utilising Social Vulnerabilities
By utilising social vulnerabilities in adversaries’ societies, Russian influence operations saw splits in public opinion. Migration is an illustrating example of Russian disinformation campaigns pushing misleading or incorrect information intended to spread confusion, fear, anger, and mistrust towards policymakers. Such campaigns often combine sensitive factors, such as religion, identity, jobs, and societal security. Illustrating examples are found in the prominent “Lisa case” in Germany when Russian disinformation promoted a media storm surrounding a fake story of a Russian-German girl reportedly having been raped by Arab migrants [source]. Furthermore, the war in Ukraine has led most European countries to ban state-linked Russian media outlets such as Sputnik and RT to prevent propaganda campaigns targeting Ukrainian refugees [source].
In summary, Russian-linked disinformation campaigns targeting social vulnerabilities seek to exploit the marginalised groups in political debates and media, giving extremist elements enhanced tools to push destabilising and anti-democratic agendas.
Russian information operations often employ the narrative of “Russophobia” as a shield for criticism and a tool to delegitimize opponents. Such narratives may have a deterrent effect when making insinuations of stakeholders, journalists, and other targeted actors as evil human beings making unfair claims about Russia. Furthermore, links are often drawn to the United States (US), and a perceived NATO expansion to further spur on constructed narratives and saw splits in western societies.
By utilising assets within Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and education institutions, Russia-linked actors are given the tools to push pro-Kremlin agendas. For example, such organisations may be peace movements promoting narratives to end military support to Ukraine in favour of peace talks and Ukrainian concessions. There may also be narratives linked to climate change intended to increase the dependence on Russian energy.
Furthermore, by placing physical assets within universities and other entities related to academia, there are opportunities to influence policy objectives and agendas within public opinion. A prominent example of the latter was the recent espionage case in Tromsoe, Norway, when the Norwegian police arrested a suspected Russian-linked researcher accused of espionage [source].
Further examples of activities intended to bring fear and uncertainty to targeted societies are the recent Russia-linked active measures in Europe and the Northern region. Admittedly, drones hovering above critical energy infrastructure in Europe facing an energy deficit are not a kinetic threat. Still, the signals such behaviour sends to the public may bring effects of fear and mistrust towards government entities.
3.0. Russian Psyops: Target Sectors by Country
Disclaimer: Although not making explicit claims of Russian involvement in some scenarios, below is a brief of desirable assessed targets for Russian Psyops in the northern region.
As a NATO member, an active supporter of Ukraine, and with strategic territories in the Baltic Sea and the Arctic region, Denmark constitutes a potential threat to Russian interests. The country thus makes up a desirable target for Russian Psyops objectives. Suspected Russian activities have been observed close to energy facilities. Also, more sophisticated disinformation campaigns have focused on widespread animal abuse and moral decay [source]. However, most Russia-linked disinformation targeting Denmark focuses on the perception of the country abroad rather than within domestic opinion.
Finland is perceived to threaten Russian interests with a pending NATO membership and being a bordering country on Russia. Also, the nation is increasingly moving from an interdependent relationship with Russia. And, it is taking a clear position towards the invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, Finland’s ambitions in the Arctic and allies in the Arctic Council make it an even more desirable target for Russian psychological operations.
Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, government-sponsored pro-Russia trolls have been conducting large-scale disinformation campaigns in Finland. They have to manipulate the public discourse and spread rumours of an imminent Russian attack. Furthermore, Russian actors have been increasingly active in the Middle East, spreading narratives to influence the perception of Finland abroad [source]. Moreover, Russia is specifically targeting Finland’s foreign language speakers to erode trust and create splits in the Finnish society [source].
Like Finland, Norway shares land borders with Russia. Moreover, the country possesses significant oil and gas assets. It thus constitutes a competitor to Russia in the global and regional energy markets. Furthermore, its support for Ukraine and Arctic ambitions, with NATO allies and its well-developed technological expertise, makes Norway a desirable target for Russian psyops. According to assessments by Norwegian intelligence, Russian influence campaigns are working to sow discord within and destabilise Norwegian society. Objectives linked to the Arctic region reportedly constitute a crucial focus in these efforts [source].
Recently, several events linked to Russia have targeted the country. For example, in October 2022, authorities arrested a suspected spy at Tromsoe University with links to Russian intelligence. Furthermore, the country has seen several suspicious activities. These activities were mostly near energy facilities, resulting in the arrests of Russian citizens.
Like Finland, Sweden is awaiting a pending NATO membership, putting the country in a vulnerable position facing Russian psyops. Furthermore, Sweden recently found the largest deposit of critical minerals in Europe, reportedly more valuable than Norway’s oil assets. These combined factors and the country’s support for Ukraine make it a desirable target.
Recently, the Swedish Prime Minister, Ulf Kristersson, answered Russian attempts to promote the narrative of Sweden. These attempts were to promote allowing NATO to place nuclear weapons in its territory [source]. Furthermore, at the end of 2022, Swedish police arrested several Russian spies. These spies ranged from former military intelligence to private citizens. Moreover, there is an ongoing disinformation campaign of Swedish social services abducting Muslim children [source].
Also, the Danish far-right politician and founder of the right-wing extremist party Stram Kurs (“Straight Course” or “Hard Line”) Rasmus Paludan is frequently organising provocative events burning the Quran, most recently outside the Turkish embassy in Sweden [source]. The event has spurred demonstrations in Turkish cities [source; source]. With the upcoming Turkish general election, the protests may bring issues to Sweden’s NATO application. Even though not attributed to Russia, we can assume that such events favour the Kremlin’s objective of destabilising the country. Russia has long capitalised on extremist and populist political actors in Europe [source].
4.0. Russian Psyops: Prospects for Future Development
As NATO and the Arctic countries are more attentive to the Arctic region, and the ongoing war in Ukraine does not end soon, there are prospects for increasing Russian psyops campaigns below the threshold of war. A destabilised Europe does serve the Kremlin’s domestic and foreign policy objectives.
Russian active measures and psyops offer covert activities below the threshold of war. As servants of its anti-Western agenda, these operations enable destabilising efforts without significant physical presence. And, with a high degree of plausible deniability. When you have a fragile security situation in Europe, Russia will enhance its efforts to destabilise relations among opponents. Hence, Russian psyops, specifically information operations, have an important place in the Kremlin’s foreign policy and Russian military strategy.